African Hair and Communication
When we think of communication in relation to mankind, it’s not unusual to juxtapose it with hypothetical scenarios like the chicken or the egg causality dilemma; which came first? Was there speech before man or was it the other way round?
Irrespective of our intellectual stance on the matter, if we agree man came first, logically, his original means of communication were non-verbal. These non-verbal methods of communication include sign language; use of symbols and totems, and cave art. In addition, hair and the use of hairstyling to pass messages form part of the non-verbal means mankind has devised in communicating with one another─ especially across Africa, where the human head and its hair are believed to have great spiritual significance.
Up till the present, African hair continues to be used as visual cues in passing surreptitious messages across religious, tribal and social divides. These messages are sometimes acknowledged and understood across the continent but rarely unanimously used. For instance, while covered hair is perceived as a sign of respect, modesty or mourning amongst women in many African societies, exposed hair by women is also one of the subtle ways African women mourn and pay their last respects to dead relatives.
In religion, it is usual for male African church-goers to keep their head bare during services while their female counterparts’ are expected to be with covered hair. Conversely, African Muslim men cover their hair as do the women in order to show reverence.
Traditional African religions do not appear to have such inhibitions in place for worshippers, however. Covering of the hair is usually done by the high priests/priestesses as part of religious regalia and is perceived as a sign of an elevated social status.
Further down the path of history, ancient Egyptian highborn men were wont to wear their hair in a singular back plait and this as well other accessories signified their elite status within society. This singular plait was used to communicate nobility.
A similar practice has been discovered among the Himba tribe in Namibia where the lone plait or braid is sometimes to the side or back of the head than front.
Among the Masai, Yoruba, Fulani, Zulu, and Bodi tribes of Africa, different hairstyles symbolised origins, social class and age amongst other things. A classic example are the ‘Ilari’ of old Oyo kingdom who usually had their hair half-shaved to denote their office. They were usually spies, eunuchs or tax-collectors and were sometimes used for sacrificial purposes by the ruling monarch.
Also, a rampant practice among African women was the creative use of hairstyles to communicate non-verbally with men. The messages passed by them through hairstyles often ranged from the simple to the clandestine. For instance Yoruba wives up to the early 90’s would make a plaited hairstyle called kehinsoko to convey to their husbands that they were angry and not talking while spinsters from among the Wolof tribe of Senegal shaved their hair partially to express unavailability for courtship.
Africans in the diaspora are not left out of the practice of hair-talk. Dreadlocks, mohawks and Afros were and continue to be used in making blatant statements.
Reggae legend Bob Marley was one of the fore-runners in popularising the dreadlock look. With the use of his global music, the look soon preserved for itself a place in people’s minds as a symbol of freedom against oppression.
Similarly, the Afro and the mohawk signify a break with neo-colonialism and a reversion to indigenous culture. The Afro especially coincided with the black movement in America where it was used to convey a sense of pride in being African, as well as fearlessness, and courage amongst other things.
The African hair is a strong indicator and is closely tied into each individual’s personality. Consciously or not, every African still uses it to convey different messages. The type of message depends mostly on the individual’s personality, background and cultural milieu.
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